The congressman had become Parker’s mentor and close friend. The two bought houses across the street from each other in Ohio and spent long hours working at Ney’s kitchen table. As a part of the congressman’s inner circle at such a young age, Parker had been consumed by the power of it all. Now everything was falling apart.
Parker had been inspired to go into public service after the September 11 terrorist attacks. During his junior year at Marietta College in Ohio, he landed a White House internship. Days before he moved to Washington in January 2002, his uncle happened to sit next to Ney—who had been elected to the House in 1994—at an event where he and the congressman were guests. Parker’s uncle told Ney about his nephew and gave him Parker’s phone number.
Soon Parker got the call that would change his life. “As a young kid, I’m getting a call from a US congressman telling me, ‘If I can ever do anything for you while you’re in DC, let me know,’ ” he says. Parker worked up the nerve to ask Ney if he could ride with him from DC back to Ohio sometime. Ney’s home at that time was in St. Clairsville, where Parker’s fiancée lived. Ney agreed, and when Presidents’ Day Weekend arrived, Parker found himself making the trip with Ney in a Lincoln Town Car.
Ney then called Parker to offer him an internship on the House Administration Committee—which Ney chaired—once Parker was done with his White House internship. Parker was thrilled, and he was about to get an even bigger opportunity. Ney had an opening for an executive assistant. Three days into his committee internship, Parker got the job.
“I’m 20 years old, and I’m the executive assistant to a powerful member of Congress,” he says. “Like that. Overnight. It was crazy.”
By January 2006, his dream job had become a nightmare. Parker’s marriage was suffering. He was on prescription drugs for stress-induced heartburn. He had nearly $50,000 in legal bills.
One afternoon in July of that year, Parker says, he and Ney drove to a wooded area in Heath, Ohio, where they lived. Parker had recently testified before the grand jury that was looking into Ney’s involvement in lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s influence-peddling scheme. Ney was being staked out by reporters and photographers, and prosecutors had advised Parker not to contact Ney about the case or he could be charged with obstruction of justice. The meeting had to happen in secrecy.
Parker was convinced that Ney was about to go down on corruption charges, and he felt he owed it to his boss to warn him. “We got out of the car and walked and talked,” Parker says. “I said to him, ‘I think this thing’s over. I think that you’re going to jail.’ ”
Parker was right—Ney would be sentenced in January 2007 to 30 months in prison. Parker’s own fate was much less certain. At 25, he would soon be out of a job, with a mortgage he was already struggling to pay, and the name Bob Ney would be a stain on his résumé.
For the nearly 17,000 staffers in Congress, life on the Hill comes with risks. Senators and House members work long hours alongside their aides and often travel and socialize with them. The relationships they form can lead to stress, legal exposure, and damage to reputations for staffers when their bosses are accused of wrongdoing.
Mike Lynch, who was California representative Gary Condit’s chief of staff when Condit was investigated in the 2001 disappearance of Chandra Levy, describes the experience: “You know when you wake up and something happens, and it’s like it can’t get worse than this? The next day was worse, and it was like that for the next six months, the next nine months. It always got worse.”
Lynch, who now has his own consulting business in California, says he incurred about $10,000 in legal bills during the Levy investigation. (Condit was cleared of any involvement in the matter.) Some lawyers who specialize in congressional investigations say that when aides start working on the Hill, they should plan to set aside money for legal bills or consider getting an insurance policy that could cover the costs.
Staffers often need legal counsel even if, like Lynch, they aren’t personally accused of wrongdoing. It’s not always clear whether investigators are interested in staff as potential targets or just as witnesses, and sometimes it takes lawyers to help figure that out. And aides who are called as witnesses or subpoenaed for documents often need lawyers to help them navigate the process.
“I’ve seen staff assistants who were just witnesses incur upwards of $5,000 in legal expenses,” says Elliot Berke, a partner at McGuireWoods who worked in both former House majority leader Tom DeLay’s and former speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s offices while they were involved in investigations.
Stefan Passantino, a partner at the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge who represents congressional aides in investigations, says he tells clients that involvement in such scandals “is simply a rite of passage of being a staffer on the Hill for more than just a few years.”
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